AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXVII, No. 2, Fall 1995


AIP Center Steps Up Activity to Preserve Papers of Scientists and Records of Institutions

Historians of science would have little hope of reconstructing the past accurately if they could not use the letters, notebooks, official documents and so forth created in the course of scientific work. All too often this documentation is dispersed, lost or destroyed. Central to the mission of the AIP Center for History of Physics is helping to ensure that the papers of distinguished physicists and the records of important scientific organizations are preserved in appropriate archives.

We typically learn of the death of an important physicist by hearing that an obituary will appear in Physics Today, by obituaries in the New York Times, or through personal contacts. We cannot follow up all of these, but select the persons whose papers are likely to be of greatest historical value. We write the head of the archives at the scientist's home institution (when the institution has an archives) to determine if they have already taken steps to acquire the papers and, if not, to encourage them to contact the family and pursue the papers. We provide assistance to the archives, for example offering to contact the family on their behalf; sometimes we must work to find another appropriate repository if the home institution cannot take the papers. The final destination of the collection is recorded in our International Catalog of Sources database and a description is published in this Newsletter.

Much of this activity was sidetracked in 1993 during the relocation of the AIP to Maryland. We returned to preservation work in early 1994, beginning with follow-ups on the papers of Harold Grad and Robert Marshak and then moving on to review all Physics Today obituaries from early 1992 forward. Since then we have worked on a total of 146 collections. Of these, 24 are now "done," mostly by the successful arrangement of papers to be placed in an appropriate repository with a description recorded in our database (occasionally, however, we can only record that no papers are known to survive). Another 36 are in a "wait" status, where we have learned that a repository has accessioned the collection but it cannot yet provide us with a description. There are 28 "inactive" files for which no action can be expected soon. For the remaining 58 we are still in the process of gathering information, advising archivists and families, and encouraging the best placement of papers.

Other Preservation Work: In addition to matching up papers of deceased physicists with archives, Center staff provide advice to living physicists and to organizations. In the past year, for example, we have visited archivists or records managers at the National Archives, the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, New York University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Iowa State University, AT&T Bell Labs, and Brookhaven National Laboratory to review problems in documenting the history of science--this is in addition to a number of site visits to space science and geophysics laboratories and funding agencies as part of the collaborations study (see article entitled, "Study of Large Collaborations in Space Science and Geophysics Issues Findings"). We also offer help to AIP Member Societies in preserving their papers either here or elsewhere. For example, in March of this year we met with Henry Bass and other members of the Acoustical Society of America to provide advice and guidance on establishing an ASA archives at the University of Mississippi; meanwhile we accessioned some records that had been held in warehouse storage by the American Association of Physics Teachers.

The Niels Bohr Library is also the repository for the records of AIP itself. The relocation to College Park spurred a major effort to sort out old records and to inaugurate an improved records management system for the future. Library staff have worked with professional records managers hired for that purpose.

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AIP History Center Center for History of Physics
Phone: 301-209-3165
American Institute of Physics 2003 American Institute of Physics, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3843. Email: Phone: 301-209-3100; Fax: 301-209-0843